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Citizen of the World

Rufino Tamayo fused Oaxacan color with European ideas. Yet the work, on view in Santa Barbara: Not so urbane.

February 28, 2007|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

Almost halfway through "Tamayo: A Modern Icon Reinterpreted," the comprehensive painting retrospective at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, there's a work of modest size that fuses the Mexican Modernist's unmistakable brilliance with his undeniable limitations. Intense, deeply personal, beautifully drafted and painted with a complex color sense that just won't quit, it also seems almost formulaic.

Rufino Tamayo was an extravagantly gifted draftsman and colorist. But his originality was circumscribed. Mostly he tweaked conventional School of Paris painting with his unique and sophisticated palette.

This particular canvas is nearly square, just slightly taller than its 28 3/4 -inch width. It depicts a twisting, agonized figure cut off at the knees and trapped inside a box. The arms reach out to press against walls that seem to be closing in -- the painting is titled "Claustrophobia" -- with splayed fingers suggesting bird or animal claws. The beak-like mouth of the jagged head is thrown open, prepared to shriek out an adjacent window.

Tamayo's shattered figure is painted in a familiar Cubist and Surrealist style, reminiscent of Picasso, Braque and Wilfredo Lam. In its boxy linear enclosure, tilted on a slight diagonal to further destabilize the scene, the torso also recalls Francis Bacon's tormented Expressionism.

And the colors are downright Fauve. Principally secondary hues, they are dominated by a flaming orange that allows under-painting of violet to show through, while little optical explosions of green are tucked into the folds of flesh. In fact, there's so much hot orange that the purple sky glimpsed outside the little window seems like an icy refuge.

The Mexican artist usually applied his paint thinly to let the neutral canvas tamp down the chromatic intensity a bit. Matisse never used a palette quite like this, but the principle of turning color into a pictorial character is the same. Tamayo, a Zapotec born in Oaxaca in 1899, is amplifying the folkloric colors of southern Mexico.

Finally, the composition of "Claustrophobia" echoes through European art history. With its slashed rib cage and flayed innards, it invokes Rembrandt's famous picture of a butchered animal, split open and stretched limb from limb, which hangs in the Louvre. That "Slaughtered Ox" inspired Chaim Soutine, who is said to have kept a rotting carcass in his studio, which he regularly doused with fresh animal blood. And it turned up two years after Tamayo's work, in a 1956 painting by Bacon, as a looming, vice-like form behind the head of Pope Innocent X.

Rembrandt adapted the slaughtered carcass motif from 17th century genre paintings showing the routine activities of everyday life in Amsterdam. But in his hands it also became a personal symbol, painted during an awful period when the once-successful artist was forced to sell off most of his possessions to cover crushing debts. The flayed meat's allusion to a crucifixion is also hard to miss -- a self-aggrandizing aura that might be what appealed to the troubled Soutine and Bacon.

And, I suspect, to Tamayo.

With the Mexian muralists

"Claustrophobia" is one of a large group of tormented figures he painted in the late 1940s and mid-1950s -- the period that the Santa Barbara show hopes to resuscitate as the artist's main contribution to Modern painting. (Tamayo was also a sculptor and printmaker, but the large exhibition -- 97 works -- is restricted to his paintings.) He had left Mexico in 1936, and for the next 13 years lived and worked mainly in New York. Just as European Modernists fleeing Hitler were arriving to add to the city's artistic ferment, Tamayo, less dramatically, was trying to get away from a sense of constriction back home.

This self-imposed exile in Manhattan did not endear him to Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and especially David Alfaro Siqueiros, the muralists who regarded their art as a banner of Mexican nationalism and as essential to the cause of social revolution there. Tamayo, three to 16 years their junior, wanted no part of it. He was a socialist, but he regarded freedom as a false promise if it also required painting a certain range of subjects and only in Realist styles. What good was revolution to an artist if it meant being pictorially shackled?

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